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WHAT OF THE NIGHT: ASPECTS OF MODERNISM IN DJUNA BARNES’ NIGHTWOOD
Djuna Barnes’ famous novel Nightwood (1936) presents us with a range of eccentric characters who are not afraid to go beyond the limits of what we would call the ordinary. The centre of the story is the expression of loss and suffering provoked by a person – Robin Vote – no one can completely understand. The narrative randomly connects characters involved with her in a story of tragic love, dissected and analyzed in dialogical scenes and especially in the monologues of Doctor O’Connor. T. S. Eliot warns in his introduction that “Nightwood is not a psychopathic study,” probably because it might seem to the reader that the characters are unconventional to the point of the absurd and that in this way they represent the pathological minority. Eliot wants to suggest instead that we all possess some of those quaint and bizarre thoughts and feelings, although we keep them well hidden. As Doctor O'Connor puts it: “Isn’t everyone in the world peculiarly swung, and me the craziest of the lot...” (139). The author does not obtain any advantage over the reader, s/he is making progress along with the reader through the wood of the night of inexplicable motifs and consequences. Yet the power of expression which the author obtains through the characters
who is looking for Robin. The streets of Paris through which Robin roams. Nightwood is perhaps a slightly peculiar name for a novel that is set in decaying urban centres – mostly in Paris. Those night worlds represent the unknown. the Doctor tries to make Nora understand that it is necessary to accept both sides of the opposition. Barnes’ novel has been compared to Ulysses for showing “the sensual. among other things. In their conversations about the night. and that is what the reader will be trying to understand. However. Berlin. used literally and metaphorically by the modernist artists from the symbolists to Joyce. while Robin represents the night. The character of Nora. linguistic. Those same night streets are the backdrop filled with fear and horror for Nora. for “the night of Nightwood is a profoundly intellectual night” (Kaup. 103). it is in the woods that horrid scenes happen. but later also in Vienna. night is one of the most frequent motifs. . If night represents the secret. then the wood of night multiplies this by the implied horror – it is in the woods that people get lost. It is in the city park that Jenny Pertheridge first sets her hands on la somnambule. half-consciously seeking escape and anonymity are the metaphorical woods. and it is in the dark of the garden that Nora sees them together for the first time. the unknown. through whom the reader has access to Robin’s story. Robin. 83). the night in Nightwood does not represent only the unknown and escape. and social disorientation in their depictions of night worlds” (Whitley. This principle of integration is at work throughout the novel. through uniting the form and plot and blurring the male and female gender boundaries. as the opposite side of a supposedly serene and rational day. all of which is a strong evidence of the novel’s modernity. and New York. Yet. which is something she has been refusing to do by refusing to accept Robin’s night life. afraid of what she might find. represents the day. In her night wanderings the streets of Paris possess the same horror as the woods.makes the rational and intellectual side prevail.
which denotes both genders. The ingeniousness and innocence of a doll are contrasted with the falsification of a mask. His voice is “irritable and possessive as a maddened woman’s” (14). The gender division into male and female also loses its clear boundaries. Here the Duchess (a woman) has a broad back – something usually said of a man. where night represents the unconscious and the irrational. and who is said to be “the property of no man.” which feminizes him. One manifestation of this is the Duchess of Broadback or Frau Mann. but it is hinted that he prefers men. denoting fraud and falsification. This is not the only dichotomy she succeeds in breaking down in the novel.When Nora seeks for advice she approaches the doctor with words “Tell me everything you know about the night” (71). means neither. She does not ignore it. and because she is unsexed as a doll. She is called “a female trapped in a body of a boy” (54). When Nora comes to his room at 3 a. which cannot be differentiated from her self.m. By erasing the gender boundaries the . a mask. he is wearing a woman’s nightgown and make-up. and her name is also appropriate for both sexes. Her name. but searches it for answers. In the character of Frau Mann there are allusions to Robin who is described almost as two-gendered. By making night the place of rationalization Barnes breaks the usual dichotomy of night and day.” an obvious characteristic of a man. But it is the doctor who is probably the most ‘mixed up’ gender-wise.. she tries to rationalize her pain. she is the property of no man. His sexual orientation is nowhere specifically stated. and also says of himself that he is “the last woman on earth that God has forgotten” (81).” The whole description of “her bodice ingrown.” Robin’s gender identity is blurred by descriptions that make her almost androgynous. not to deny it. but also “a terrific widow’s peak. as if connected with her body” symbolizes a costume. Moreover. and day the conscious and the rational. He is introduced as having “shaggy eyebrows. and is called Frau Mann or Mrs Man. she is described as being “unsexed as a doll.
who are too clean (“you wash yourself too clean for identification” (90)) and who wash themselves metaphorically too. By going into their past. trying to obtain a clean history. One of the reasons why she is perfect is because she is American. although in his own terms. damned” (9). The Americans. To wash himself clean of this legacy he wishes to become part of the mainstream by marrying an American. Barnes accentuates Felix’s feelings of not belonging and his persistent racial memory. not even something as seemingly natural as one’s gender.narrator points out the modernist premise that nothing can be taken for granted. not only by his belonging to the “wrong” nation. is denoted as “the embarrassed” from the beginning and this name is enhanced by the description of his race as “hot. and concludes that “only in death she will be peaceful. The narrator aims to express Nora Flood’s misunderstanding of her partner and the pain derived from it. but it is interesting that Felix desires the same. and “with an American anything can be done” (35). she will stop moving” (52). which is soiled and burdened. are the perfect counterpart to Felix’s history. It is not unusual to wish for stability and security in a love relationship. his father. but also by his lying about his family background. and their false genealogy. In that passage he states that the . Robin represents the security of fitting in. In fact. incautious. To Felix. The doctor draws a parallel between the Catholic and the Protestant church (in which the Catholic Church is “the girl you love so much she can lie to you” (18)). She wants peace and tranquillity. what she wants from Robin is not so different from his desires. but what she also tries to do is to move it beyond the personal sphere and make Nora’s story the symbol or metaphor for the much wider search for understanding the unknown. Traditional and Modern Although Nora is a character opposed to Felix Volkbein in almost every sense. the novel starts with the narration of Guido Volkbein’s family. Guido. of being appropriate.
Robin does not confine herself to any set of rules. (19) Barnes does something similar by making the personal story of a few people a story of loss and misunderstanding which can happen to anyone. great American woman. the innocent child who plays with dolls – is the personification of the unknown. a boy trapped in a woman’s body. American. but rather produce the opposite effect. there is something elusive in the portrayal of her. or appropriate. reproached or forgiven. for whom Barnes uses all sorts of names – la somnabule (the sleepwalker). Nora represents tradition. “it would have been impossible.. she is guided by economic principles – she has virtues and expects Robin to appreciate that she is “objectively” more valuable than Jenny Pertherige. etc... The denotation of her as la somnabule defines her as someone who roams around .personal story is the most effective when told together with a legend and that is what the Catholic Church is based on. she does not have a category to put herself in. But to consider something valuable. the squatter. she is the character we can easily identify with: a strong. Nora’s character is the embodied wish for a clear representation of the kind we get in realistic literary forms.] and mingling them both with the Holy Spoon.. to define oneself according to a certain category (Nora is – loving.” and were she in court. no one would have been hanged. the one around which the story revolves. because no one would have been 'acused'”(48). That is what Nora Flood – along with the reader – tries to capture. preventing us from forming a clear and complete picture of her. the woman-beast. Although she is the central character of a novel. go into mass at any moment—what do you walk in upon? Something that’s already in your blood. Robin. Different images of her do not complement each other. “who is filled with love for all people. Why? Because you are sitting there with your own meditations and a legend [. it is necessary to confine oneself to a particular set of rules. But turn to the Catholic church.).
just like Robin. an instance that is the author who has no voice we can hear. Nevertheless. or a past. The temporality of relationships represents a source of suffering. As T. The time in which nothing lasts forever is what Nora tries to defeat in long conversations with the Doctor. that takes in everything at the same time. since it is Nora who focalizes the story. Instead of that she employs a spatial form. Perhaps a modernist author who loses his personality. If Nora is a metaphor for the traditional way of writing. Eliot points out. it would be expected that the author takes Robin’s side. an author who does not have a home. the author obviously shows that s/he favours Robin as a metaphor. The exuberant language of the decor is not lartpourlartism. But the division is not as clear cut as that. along with Felix and Jenny. the reader sympathizes with Nora. of the need to communicate. even though she represents the less progressive view.without a will of her own. just as we do not know anything about Robin’s life prior to her showing up in the novel as the lady who fainted in the hotel. But as Nora rightly realizes in regards to her relationship with Robin. An author who does not exists outside the text. just as Robin has none. and Robin for the modernist one. it serves to enhance the feeling of chaos. by using the modernist style of writing. Barnes’ language is so . who remains undefined. That is what Barnes formally succeeds in doing by defying the rules of standard linear form of common-style storytelling. and since the story is about Nora’s suffering and loss. to express pain and to find one’s identity.S. the only eternity she can get is with Robin dead. Robin metaphorically represents the desire for anonymity. This overlapping tendencies show that the author is guided by Eliot’s principles of modernism in which the modern is essentially conjoined with tradition. Time and Space In Barnes’ novel the form cannot be divided from the content.
Spatial form is “the unification of disparate ideas and emotions into a complex that has an instantaneous impact is the only thing which can provide liberation of time and space limits” (Frank. Robin. but within the novel as well. realistic. and it is what Barnes formally manages to surpass. She does this by ignoring the naturalistic principles of storytelling. for which he will try to provide a cure. The first chapter may offer a narrative of Felix Volkbein’s parents and his past.poetic that it will “appeal primarily to readers of poetry” (Eliot. creating instead a novel which lacks a traditional. The limited duration of time is what puts her character in agony in the plot of the novel. When describing Felix. . This may serve as the anticipation of Nora and Robin’s lamentable encounter.e. and in his monologues various fantastic and symbolic narratives are interwoven with many odd stories which sometimes do not have any obvious connection to the main plot. Robin and Jenny Pertherdige. The details are being provided not according to the time line but introduced randomly. Exactly those limits are what Barnes tries to trespass. Barnes mentions he knew “tales of men who became holy and of beasts that became damned” (9). This may be an allusion to his own tragic story with the woman-beast. That is how we find out what happened between Nora and Robin. Barnes makes references to things not only outside the novel. 1) and this is no accident as the first attempts at using spatial form have been made in modern poetry. 10). his prolific knowledge of all kinds of things. who will bear him a child which is at various times called “holy. Robin and Felix Volkbein. The plot does not develop in a traditional manner but is presented through ardent and enthusiastic discussions between Nora and Doctor O’Connor. but will not succeed in finding it. narrative structure. in the flow of conversation. i. especially the odd ones.” In Nora’s first direct encounter with the Doctor he mentions “the cure” – “still it will not be a cure” (17). but then the Doctor enters the story.
” as “a woman-beast.” Furthermore. The circus figures looked monstrous to him but he still haunted (the author uses exactly this word. the realisation that everything is false. just as Felix has done. As in the Baroque. but as the end approaches. overabundance of language and descriptions cloud the transparency of meaning. When enumerating the circus people the narrator mentions that they are “gaudy. The exaggerated language is matched by the significant place that the circus and the spectacle have in the novel. their falseness is permitted and light – which is exactly what Felix desires for himself. Just like the circus.. they take aristocratic names. This may be connected with Robin. Barnes uses the Baroque concept of desengano noticeable in the flow of the Doctor’s monologues. in contrast to his. which show his decaying state of mind. but wrath and weeping!” (149). .” or as “the boy trapped in a woman's body. cheap cuts from beast life” (20). and that there is no cure for one’s maladies is characteristic of the pessimism of the Baroque. which will later be used in connection with Robin) them. but. they get more dark and pessimistic. Among the more obvious examples are different descriptions of Robin as “a vision of an eland coming down the aisle of trees.] which brought him longing and disquiet” because it was “something he could never touch or know” (11). as Robin is often called “the beast-woman. Furthermore. Baron Felix Volkbein is enchanted by the circus.Various critics have argued that there are many characteristics of the Baroque in this modernist novel. As Monika Kaup points out. the Baroque was “the first articulation of modernity” (Kaup. 88).. he connects it with aristocracy since both signify wearing masks and an essential falseness.” The imagery used makes it impossible for us to get a clear picture of Robin. This loss of faith. In the beginning of the novel his monologues are almost mocking. to finally finish with “now nothing. He loved “the emotional spiral of the circus [. Its dense language of the subconscious and abundance can certainly be found in Nightwood.
the language of the trivial and of suffering. and states that this is one of two things that men really want. historical. the greatest part of it dealing with a lesbian relationship and the main character being a person we could characterize as transvestite or transsexual. becomes the spectacle.Robin was someone he could not completely “touch. and the author presents us with one of the most memorable quotes when he says that the Catholic Church “is the girl you love so much that she can lie to you” (18). The novel is clearly concerned with gender and sexual issues. the expression of loss being just one of them. And Nora was in the same position concerning Robin. which is so thoroughly dealt with. but it also seems to stress that the language of the Baroque is the language of both meaning and the loss of meaning. but it is impossible to claim that the purpose of the novel is resolving religious doubts or promoting homosexual rights. In Nightwood. Yet none of these questions takes up the leading role in the novel. gender and any other aspect of Nightwood. as Kaup suggests. and pretend a lot that you do not feel” (18)). the suffering. Its purpose remains only that what is written. The description of the circus and the emotions it provokes contributes to the atmosphere of Baroque grotesqueness and flamboyance. *** There are many themes that Nightwood gives voice to. (The other being “the girl that loves you so much that you can lie to her. One important theme developed throughout the novel is the question of clean/dirty history in connection with one’s racial and national identity. Religious questions are discussed during the whole course of the novel. It is possible to discuss the religious.” know or understand. .
1996). Catherine Whitley: “Nations and the Night: Excremental History in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. Matthew O’Connor. Confession. Monika Kaup: “The Neobaroque in Djuna Barnes” Modernism/modernity 12(2005)1: 85-110. 1963). 3-62. Con-. Literature and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1966). Joseph Frank: “Spatial Form in Modern Literature. rpt. 1936. Kenneth Burke: “Version. Veltman: “The Bible Lies the One Way.BIBLIOGRAPHY Djuna Barnes: Nightwood (London: Faber and Faber. pp. Per-. and Gender in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” Modern Fiction Studies 47(2001)2: 279305. Laura J.” Journal of Modern Literature 24(2000)1: 81-98. pp.” Modern Fiction Studies 49(2003)2: 204-227. 240-253.” in The Widening Gyre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Jean Gallagher: “Vision and Inversion in Nightwood. . ************* Carolyn Allen: Following Djuna: Women Lovers and the Erotics of Loss (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Thoughts on Djuna Barnes’s Novel Nightwood. 2001). but the Night-Gown the Other”: Dr. and In.” in Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life.
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